HuhYou may have already heard it today. You may have said it at least once—maybe more if you went to work sleep-deprived. Some might consider it coarse, impolite or even rude. Just about everybody else doesn’t “consider” it at all. They just say it with the unconscious abandon of an expression common to their 7.3 billion fellow inhabitants of the planet earth. Huh?

No kidding. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have determined that Huh? is actually a word and not just a sound. What’s more, it’s universal and unlike, say, achoo or ouch, has to be learned. The team didn’t take any shortcuts on the road to these conclusions. Though perhaps tempted to use Google Translate and wrap up their project in an afternoon, they opted instead for a more rigorous analysis of 31 languages and the study of almost 200 audio recordings. Following this herculean effort, they were able to report with absolute confidence that, “The similarity of this interjection across languages is unlikely to be specified in our genetic makeup and we argue that it is the result of convergent cultural evolution: a monosyllable with questioning prosody and all articulators in near-neutral position is the optimal fit to the sequential environment of other-initiated repair.” Huh?

Encountering this kind of tortured prose in a scientific paper can lead to legitimate skepticism among the general public. It doesn’t help that the researchers seem a bit defensive about their project. They sheepishly note, “It might seem frivolous or even trivial to carry out scientific research on a word like Huh? But in fact, this little word…is an indispensable tool in human communication.” In other words, while their work is frivolous and trivial, it’s made less so because it has something to do with “communications.” Perhaps. Still, one can’t help but wonder if the parents of these researchers don’t tell friends and relatives that their kids are working on something meaningful—say global warming. Huh?

There’s some hope this work will prove beneficial. The team claims they, “can shed light on the emergence and motivation of linguistic signs.” If, by this, the psycholinguists mean other helpful universal words could be developed, it could prove a boon for mankind. At least half the world’s population would rejoice if there was some global shorthand for, “Where can I get a cold beer?” followed thirty minutes later by, “Which way to the gent’s?” Now that’s worthy research! Huh?

Unfortunately, this research may not be as promising as we were led to believe. Though the paper provocatively asked, “Is ‘Huh?’ a Universal Word?” and the authors repeatedly answered in the affirmative, in the end, they parsed their conclusion. Turns out when they say Huh?, they mean, “more precisely a short questioning interjection with the function of other-initiation of repair….” So Huh? isn’t a universal word at all. It’s an interjection that’s similar to interjections found in 31 other languages. A quick listen to some of those audio recordings they studied confirms that in a lot of places Huh? doesn’t sound much like Huh?.  What’s the point? Sometimes the collecting and analysis of trivial data is just that—trivial. And unless you have a lot of spare time, it’s not worth the effort. Of course, there’s no trivial data collecting going on where you work is there? Huh?       —Ebert

Leave a Reply